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Cooking Backward

Seeking inspiration in the past is fine, but Larry Forgione is starting to seem stuck there.

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Cher is back. Apple is back. And everyone who begged for the return of the two-seater Thunderbird will soon have his prayers answered (though it will probably cost about $40,000 for an amen). Shaved buff bod and all, Andre Agassi came roaring back. According to Pamela Anderson, Tommy Lee has her back. And even more unthinkable, they're claiming $12 million in advance ticket sales for Saturday Night Fever, the Broadway musical -- one can only cling to the hope that a full-scale Bee Gees revival is still beyond the boundaries of human endurance.

Not all comebacks fly. Frampton, Capriati, the clunky new Impala, Robert Downey Jr.'s dispiriting backward slides, and the infamous musical Carrie (so rivetingly wretched it ought to still be running). Nevertheless, add to the triumphs mentioned above the thriving transplants of Le Cirque 2000 and Chanterelle -- plus the never-ending workshop production of Promises, Promises being staged by David Bouley. The possibility of rejuvenation is evidently too tempting for several veteran restaurateurs to ignore.

Consequently, Larry Forgione has conjured up An American Place for a third time, appropriately in the new, vintage-veneered Benjamin Hotel, smack-dab in the middle of Hotel Rehab Row. It is impossible to chronicle the rise of the contemporary foodist in America without paying homage to this pioneering chef-proprietor. Forgione was one of the primary talents fostering pride in America's bountiful resources and regional flavors, and while his menus have often read like geography lessons, his cooking was hardly academic. Bold, big, and yet heartwarmingly familiar (few can beat his potted short ribs, pan roasts, or cobblers), this was food that offered adventurousness and assurance in equal measure.

So it's disconcerting to discover that Forgione has gone to great expense and effort to re-create what can easily be mistaken for the most exciting restaurant of 1983. One look at the "stained glass"-patterned carpet and enough rich wood pillaring to panel a law office may make you sorry you ever extracted the shoulder pads from your power suit or the volumizing mousse from your hair. Yipes, could the Bee Gees be backing him?

Not to say the restaurant isn't comfortable. The seats are plush, the sound levels low; even the tables in the bar area are pleasant. But why time-warp back to a setting and a period for which there is so little to be nostalgic about? True, these are the surroundings in which you probably first encountered the marvels of wood-roasting, salmon on a cedar plank, she-crab soup, and grilled pork fillet with roasted parsnips and mashed potatoes whipped into shape by horseradish. And since, for many, surprise is hardly a dining imperative, there is comfort to be found in a house that can toss off crisp Ipswich clams, rich Dungeness-crab cakes, and downy strawberry shortcake with the ease of a spelling-bee finalist nailing the word antediluvian. But sparkle is missing from many choices. A sense of rote flattens the Vidalia-onion salad, charred yellowfin tuna, pasta with cèpes, and caramelized foie gras. "Granny Lu" had to have made a moister devil's-food cake, or who would bother remembering it? It's not that diners need to be continually challenged. But talents do.

However, even if your attitude is Hey, enough fusion and Mediterranean finger food, leave me to go back to what I know, there is still one aspect of the vainglorious days of yesteryear that has absolutely no business returning. When the first Yuppies roamed the earth, they said "no problemo" to a $26 tag on a snappy little Napoleon of baby white asparagus and cèpes or a single free-range- chicken breast. They thought nothing of being charged $36 for two double lamb chops. Well, if you can fork it over today without wincing, you're a stronger man than I. And dumber. To be fair, Mr. Forgione is far from the only guilty party. Too many menus I've been handed over the past three months have offered desserts in the double digits and 36-ounce steaks for $42. Is anyone with this much cash really that hungry?

I'd recently been impressed at how reasonable (and really good) the fish was at Fireman's of Brooklyn. Last week, I heard that the portions would be slightly increased, along with some of the prices. No, don't do this. This is not what simple abundance is about. Forgione has opened Rosehill on the former site of An American Place as an economical alternative. And though too many of the dishes are only nominally cheaper (the lobster pie is a rip-off), a sprightly Hudson Valley trout filet, an Alaskan halibut basted in a brisk chili-lime barbecue, sweet soft-shell crabs, and a cedar-planked Roger's Island salmon all fall under $20 in more-than-adequate servings (though side dishes are $5). Still, culinary malaise has found a home here, too, turning the veal scaloppine tougher than nicotine patches one night, the ceviche gummy, and turkey pot pie into something ungloriously Swanson. But those pan roasts are just superb.

No one could call Forgione lazy. He has opened yet a third restaurant, though it's a bizarre choice: a reconstitution of another blast from the past, the Coach House, the legendarily overrated restaurant that sat in smug judgment of its patrons on the site now occupied by the superior Babbo. But none of these undertakings seems particularly ambitious. Who could blame Forgione if it's tourists he's after? Times Square is no longer for New Yorkers, either. But the problem with these restaurants is that they're not really comebacks; they're look-backs. Perhaps he should have called his premier restaurant An American Time and Place.

An American Place, 565 Lexington Avenue, at 50th Street (212-888-5650). Breakfast, 7 to 10:30 a.m. daily; lunch, 11:45 a.m. to 3 p.m. daily; dinner, 5:30 to 11 p.m. Monday through Saturday, 5 to 9:30 p.m. Sunday. Appetizers, $8 to $14; entrées, $19 to $36. All major credit cards.

Rosehill, 2 Park Avenue, at 32nd Street (212-684-2121). Lunch, 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. Monday through Friday; dinner, 5 to 9:30 p.m. Monday through Saturday. Appetizers, $7 to $14; entrées, $17 to $26. All major credit cards.


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